November 19, 2012

Focus on Key Words Your Child Wants to Say

Photo Courtesy of Pfau's Photostream
Back in August, I started a series of posts summarizing the key learning points I cover in my infant/toddler signing workshops. I began by saying that signing opportunities come in three main contexts: When you sing and play with your baby,  when you verbally label routine activities and objects throughout the day, and when you focus on key words that are important to you and your baby. This posts brings us to the area of focus signs.

In my experience, many signers start (and end) with focus signs. They choose one or two or three key words and sign the dickens out of those until their baby starts signing back to them. Although this is certainly one way to sign with your baby, I find that it is not the most effective or natural way. This approach to signing is more intentional. It tends to be more goal-oriented and steeped with expectation (and as a result, frustration). When we focus deliberately on key signs, it's not unusual for the signing experience to feel like work instead of feeling like a way to connect with and engage our baby. If we begin (and end) with focus signs, our signing is more likely to feel like a technique we are doing on our baby, versus a way of communicating with our baby.

Okay, so I'm biased. I can't hide that...But let me also say that it's not that I'm against signing key focus words. Rather, it's that I think it's more effective (and more natural) for focus signs to be a sub-set of the words you sign when you sing and play and when you label, versus the only words, or even the main words, you sign.

The truth of the matter is that focus signs are essentially power labels. Ideally, focus signs grow out of the foundation you've built through singing, playing and labeling. Here's how it all ties in together: If you sign when you sing and play, you'll build an ample signing vocabulary. This means you'll be able to casually and naturally provide sign labels for the activities and objects in your daily life. Your focus signs will be those activities and objects that you hear yourself labeling most often, over and over again. So essentially, your focus signs will emerge naturally by signing when you sing, play and label.

That said, people tend to appreciate guidelines, so here goes:

Consider the signs you incorporate when you sing, play and label. Of those, choose 1-3 words to work on.

Focus on words your baby would say if he or she were able to clearly verbalize wants, needs, or interests. You baby's first signs will be words he or she is motivated to say.

For singing and playing, I've said, "Use 'The Wheels on the Bus' as your guide."  For labeling, I've said, "Label when you're able, let your words be your guide." For focus signs, think about how we teach babies to wave "bye-bye" or do "high-five's," and use that experience as your guide. By this I mean, consider what it's like when Grandma leaves your house after a visit. She stands by her car and waves emphatically at your baby.  You hold your baby on your hip and wave to Grandma. You take hold of your baby's arm and wave it wildly at Grandma. Grandma waves some more. One day, your baby pumps his or her arm up and down. It might not look the same as the way you wave, but you recognize it as your baby's early attempt at waving. You and Grandma cheer with enthusiasm.  You document it in the baby book. You call people and let them know that your baby has started waving! It's a big deal.

Photo Courtesy of Pfau's Photostream
Focus signs work in much the same way. You bounce your baby on your lap. You're baby giggles wildly, so you know he or she is having fun. During a bouncing break, you say and sign, "Do you want MORE bounces?" Your baby squeals with excitement and wiggles.  YES exudes from his or her body. You bounce more. You break again. You sign "MORE bounces?" again. You hear more squeals and see more happy wiggles. This scene replays many times day after day. One day you see your baby bring his or her hands together during this routine. It might look like a clap. It might be a pointer finger tapped on the palm of the opposing hand. It might look like an accident. Assume it's intentional. Cheer with enthusiasm. Respond with more bounces. Document it in the baby book. Be on the lookout for more signs to come, because, I'm telling you people, the fun has just begun!

I hope that was helpful! Thanks for sticking with me for this series of posts summarizing the key learning points in my signing workshops. Next up, I will post a summary of links for the full series of posts on this topic, then I will move on to a more general forum of common Q and A's, more tips and tricks, and new topics! If you have particular questions you want answered, post them here or send me a private message, and I will respond to your questions in subsequent posts.

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